My church family has been passing around The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. When I finished it, I closed the book thinking, “Huh, okay then.”
I’ve read my fair share of bleak novels all through college and for me, The Parable of the Sower comes in second place in the extremely short list of depressing books that disturb yet fascinate me. First place goes to Blindness by José Saramago, which I literally threw across my dorm room as I had a mental breakdown because of how evil the characters in the book are. Yet Blindness ends on a happier note that The Parable of the Sower.
Butler makes her point very clear in this novel–the world is going to hell because humans are intrinsically terrible to the environment and terrible to each other. She presents a world where there’s no hope of healing rifts of any kind–racial, gender, or socioeconomic. People destroy each other and what little remains of actual communities, some hopped up on drugs and others just trying to survive. Trauma is such a regular occurrence that it’s narrated in the bluntest, matter-of-fact way. “So and so died today.” “So and so was raped.” “So and so’s house burned downed.” Even when the survival part of the story begins, the main character, Lauren, is nothing but a pessimist.
The status quo in this world is keep the poor out. Make sure you have guns to protect yourself from the crazy poor people and the druggies. Trust no one, not even old people or women with small children. Help no one except your own community.
It’s very desperate and isolating, yet Lauren acts against this as she continues her journey north from her destroyed neighborhood and forms her own community based on her Earthseed religion. Even so, it’s a future that I refuse to accept. I think Butler went overboard in both this novel and its sequel (which I may or may not read) so that we would actively refuse what she depicts.
Lauren refuses this vision in the book when she gives water to a young couple following her and when she stops to save two women trapped in a collapsed building and when she lets two strangers who wandered into her community overnight stay with their group. She does all of this despite the modus operandi of the world she lives in and despite her own strict convictions about how the world operates.
I think refusing Butler’s vision in our own world includes seeing the Other as human, not being afraid to feed homeless people, volunteering our own time and labor to build homes and cook meals, advocating for legal and social equity for the marginalized, and writing stories with more positive visions of the future so we don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy.